Struck by Lightning – an Interview with Phil McGrew

My friend, and fellow moonatic*, Phil McGrew found himself instantly thrust into the international spotlight for an image he captured from his office window. The occasion was a rare display of violent weather in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The photo has gone viral with over a 200,000 views on Flickr (1,474″favorites”) as well as international appearances.  For mysterious and unfathomable reasons, Phil’s photo didn’t make it to the famed “Flickr Explore” which clearly is not measuring how phenomenally great a photo is!

Bay Bridge Lightning Strike!

Photo by Phil McGrew - The Sizzle Heard Around the World. Used with permission.

More than just a few people have “honored” Phil by copying his photo and posting it among their own work. I understand the temptation. But that’s just plain wrong (not to mention a violation of copyright law).  Phil has given me permission to show his photo and tell his story.

You may be here because you’re looking for some specific information.  If so, here is the cheat sheet – or just read on for more interesting data.

Is this Photoshopped? Is it Real?

First let’s get a few things right – lots of speculation and conjecture about the photo has swirled on various social networking sites. None of that related to anything Phil ever said or wrote. All of it due to misquotations and assumptions.

Phil took the photo from his office window. Those “dots” are rain on the window because Phil wasn’t too eager to put his brand new Canon 5D Mark III out in the elements. The ISO was set to 100, and f/10 was the f-stop.  The photo was captured using an intervalometer that continuously snapped 20 second photos. He didn’t try to “time it”.

Here is how Phil describes it:

The photograph is a single, 20-second exposure. The Daily Mail interview implied that all 8 strikes hit at the same time. There are actually 9 strikes, and some people argued that the lightning didn’t all hit at once. All I can say with certainty is that there are no strikes on the photo before or after this one, so all the strikes had to have occurred within the 20 seconds. Some people commented that the photo must have been compiled in Photoshop because it didn’t look like there were any cars on the bridge. However, in a 20 second exposure, car headlights and taillights appear as a streak. Because our vantage point is higher than the traffic deck that streak of car lights also seems to blends in more so it looks like part of the bridge.

What Was the Most Difficult Part of Getting this Image?

The most difficult thing was getting my office completely dark so I could eliminate reflections on the window. I have five computers, six monitors, a mini cell tower, and a router. Like a lot of home offices, it’s full of lots of electronic things with blinking lights. 

Can I Buy This Image?

Phil is overwhelmed with requests at the moment but he is feverishly trying to set up to sell and license the image.  Check Phil’s website: 

He hopes to have an order page set up soon.

Can I Use this Photo on My Desktop?

Not legally, no. Making a personal copy is a violation of copyright law. However the Google Photos Screen Saver is able to pull and display photos from Flickr and other sources.  For example if you add this to the “Google Screen saver” it will pull in the latest of Phil’s shots.

How Did You End up on the News?

You may have seen Phil’s shot. It was featured on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, and his shot has been widely shown on local, national and international news stations.  Here is how that came about.

My girlfriend Sherry urged me to contact the NBC Bay Area news the first night because we knew they’d be featuring the storm, and by the time I realized I had lightning and that it was in focus and not overexposed, there was still time to make the 11:00pm broadcast. I had a contact number for the assignments desk because I had contacted them previously to let them know about a great story featuring Eric Harness.  (NOTE: That is Eric Harness of StarCircleAcademy!) He’d found a camera in a creek bed while hiking in Yosemite and used social media to post a few of the photos in an attempt to locate the camera’s owner.  I called the assignments desk again to tell them about the photo, and posted it to my Flickr account so they could see it. They decided they’d like to use it during the broadcast. We thought it’d probably just appear once at the beginning of the weather segment, and we were shocked that they actually showed it four times during the broadcast, mostly as an interstitial, but still, it was fun to see.

Are You Really 49 Years Old, You Seem Much Younger?

I think one thing Phil definitely regrets is being made several years older needlessly.  When I asked him whether he was indeed 49 his answer was:

No, but I hope to be someday so I wasn’t too upset when the Daily Mail listed me as 49. I thought it made me sound more experienced.

It’s also a good case of “don’t believe everything you read.”

Is This Lightning Strike Your Favorite Shot?

Definitely not. My favorite shots are the ones I’ve had to work for. Lunar and solar alignments require some effort to plan. As a former nuclear engineer, I love the challenge of doing calculations to figure out where the moon or other planets are going to be and when, then scouting out the best location and angle to get an interesting shot. Then, of course, you have to hope for clear skies, which is never a given here in the Bay Area. The lightning show was more of a “I’m going to set up the camera and see what happens, maybe I’ll get lucky” event. In fact, once I set it up, I went into the other room and watched TV for a few hours. Don’t get me wrong, the attention that it’s gotten has been an amazingly fun and overwhelming experience, and I’m really grateful for all the kind words and interest people have shown in it. I never thought I’d be on local or national news, or appear in back-to-back issues of San Francisco Magazine, without having committed a serious crime. However, I’d have to say that one of my favorite photos is the full moon over the Transamerica building in San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge in the foreground. It took quite a bit of planning and the sky ended up with some really amazing colors. It was kind of a “magical” moment where everything just went right.

Moonrise Over San Francisco

Photo by Phil McGrew. Used with Permission

What Subjects Most Interest You?

I gravitate towards night photography. But I’m still trying to figure out what kind of photographer I am so I always try to shoot a variety of subjects. My Flickr account is a little all over the place because just about everything interests me. Night scenes, animals, landscapes. The only thing I don’t really shoot much is people. I think that’s because I’m actually pretty shy and I’m never really sure how to approach them.

Are You Surprised About Your Instant Fame?

I can’t think of anything that hasn’t surprised me. The first night I thought it was great that the local NBC late news showed it four times during the broadcast. I still have no idea how an image clearing house in the UK found it on Flickr, but I was surprised when they called me later that evening to ask if they could distribute it. The next morning, it appeared in the Daily Mail and people started forwarding it to me, and obviously, their other friends. It just sort of took off from there. Before the Daily Mail article, my main goal for that day had been to try to catch the jet fly over for the Giants home opener. I certainly wasn’t expecting to get hundreds of emails and Twitter posts, much less do interviews with local news stations. The whole thing has been one surprise after another. 

What Photographs and Photographers Most Inspire You?

I didn’t study photography formally so I’m probably not as familiar with the “greats” as other people are. However, I’m always inspired when I surf Flickr and see the amazing night photography featured.  I get assistance and inspiration from a variety of photographers I interact with whether they know it or not.  The greatest influences thus far are people I’ve personally shot with and they include Steven Christenson, Harold Davis, and Fred Larson.  There are so many people out there with interesting views and great composition that it doesn’t seem fair to only name a few but that’s the top three.

NOTE: Steven and Harold are also founders of StarCircleAcademy – thanks for the plug, Phil!

More Exposure for Phil

Phil Appears on CBS News, San Francisco

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